September 20, 2014

Capitals vs. Penguins: The Thrill is Gone (For Now)

Caps Celebrating 2011 Winter Classic Victory! (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

As the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins prepare for their third of four meetings in this 2011-12 regular season Wednesday night at the Verizon Center, I invite you to cast your minds back to the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011.

As one year turned into another, the Capitals and Penguins played two of the most anticipated games of the season. The Dec. 23 meeting in Washington, which Pittsburgh won 3-2 in a shootout, was the best regular season game of that term, full of skill and energy. Nine days later, the teams met again at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field in front of 68,111 fans in the Winter Classic. This time, the Capitals won 3-1, and the whole crazy, glorious business was captured for posterity by HBO’s cameras.

Their meeting in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals aside, it was the biggest stage for what the NHL hoped would be its answer to Bird/Magic and Brady/Manning: Crosby/Ovechkin.

A year and 11 days after that triumphant New Year’s night in Pittsburgh, the Capitals/Penguins rivalry has become the one thing the NHL didn’t want it to be: an afterthought.

The reasons for this are obvious. Since New Year’s Day 2011, Sidney Crosby has only played nine games. Alex Ovechkin’s offensive numbers, once eye-popping, have nosedived over the previous calendar year. After 40 games of this season, Washington’s Russian captain has recorded only 33 points. By contrast, he recorded 85 points in 79 games in 2010-11 and a remarkable 109 points (including 50 goals) in 72 games in 2009-10.

Apart from the two main players in this drama, several members of the respective supporting casts have suffered ill fortune over the last year or so. For Washington, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom are both day-to-day with groin and head injuries, respectively.  As bad as that sounds, Pittsburgh’s situation is even worse. Kris Letang has been out since late November with a concussion. James Neal, Jordan Staal, and Craig Adams are all dealing with nagging injuries, while Paul Martin is feeling unwell.  In all, the Penguins have missed 210 man-games due to injury this season.

Meanwhile, the rest of the league has moved on from Capitals/Penguins. The best game of this season so far was the Jan. 7 match-up between Boston and Vancouver, a Stanley Cup Finals re-match that was shot through with just as much nastiness as any Pittsburgh-Washington encounter. Meanwhile, as the Capitals and Penguins have dropped from the top of the NHL standings (they’ll be 10th and 8th respectively in the Eastern Conference when they meet Wednesday), new rivalries with their own special story lines have taken their place. Most of these have been helped along by recent playoff match-ups (Boston vs. Philadelphia, Chicago vs. Vancouver), while others have the time-tested strengths of history and geography behind them (Boston vs. Montreal, Chicago vs. Detroit, New York vs. Philadelphia).

Make no mistake, as long as Western Pennsylvania exiles come to the D.C. area to work and live, and as long as Terrible Towels are spotted at the Verizon Center, there will always be juice to the rivalry from a local point of view.  But the heady days of 2009, 2010, and (very early) 2011 are gone, and it could be quite some time before they come back.

Sam Chamberlain has covered Washington sports since 2010. His writing has previously appeared on TBD.com, SB Nation DC, We Love DC, The New Hampshire Union Leader, and Editor & Publisher magazine.

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